Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Gift & Burden of Choice

Someone recently mentioned "the burden of choice" to me. Having two parents with Alzheimer's I am aware of the flip side- the burden of losing choice. When we're growing up there is a gradual progression- we get to make more and more of our own choices, we look forward to being increasingly "in charge" of our own lives (until we figure out that's not exactly how it works in every instance) and often, particularly in the teenage years, imagine we will do things "better," or at least very differently than the adults around us.

My father's disease has advanced to the point where it is clear that he cannot make most of his own choices, although his daily caregivers give him as much autonomy as possible. It may not seem like much to decide what you will eat or where you will walk, but I can see my father's spirit is fed by being able to make even these small choices.

My mother is still in-between where her ability to make choices changes continually and is not so clear. Just because someone is unable make some choices, doesn't mean they can't make any choices for themselves. It's tricky, in part because we do not want to cause suffering by either prematurely removing a choice or by allowing a choice (like driving) that might endanger others.

It occurs to me that this is an essential aspect of our experience as human beings: decisions/choices consciously and unconsciously being made. Not to decide is in itself a choice with its own consequences. Sometimes we feel there should be someone else- someone wiser, kinder, less neurotic and more balanced and compassionate than us- to make the really Big Choices, particularly the ones that potentially impact others.

Of course we can and sometimes do draw upon resources that are larger than our own small perspective- the resources of community, the knowledge and wisdom of those who have walked this way before, and the guidance of that sacred wholeness we may call God or the Mystery. But it all still gets filtered through and acted upon by us- small human beings with our prejudices and unconscious fears, our incomplete knowledge and intermittent intuition, with our instincts and feelings and our desire to do what it truly best for all.

It's messy. At times it can feel like a burden, something for which we are ill-equipped. But I cannot help but feel it is also a gift, the core of what being here is about: learnin to make the best choices we are able to make knowing we are human, knowing there will be unanticipated consequences and changing conditions (inner and outer- many beyond our control) that will necessitate making new choices again and again.

It's a strange dance, a movement born of the tension between what we do not control and the ever-changing abilities we have to respond (our response-ability) for those choices that are ours. Somehow, in this tension- perhaps because of it- we grown up, we learn to do the best we can, we develop the ability to hold with tenderness our shared fallibility and limitations. In the shamanic teachings with which I have worked, we describe this process of shifting from unconscious reactivity to making compassionate choices to the best of our ability as moving from being a "two-legged" to being fully human.

It's why we are here.

Oriah House (c) 2013


  1. I especially love the last 4 paragraphs. I share so many of your blog writings on my professional page. There is only one other writer besides you (and myself) that I can do that ... with confidence ... for my clients. Your perspectives are so in alignment with self kindness and consideration for our world. I love your writing Oriah .. You are a special lady ... thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    1. Thank you Dawn- and thanks for sharing where it feels like a fit :-)

  2. This was a brave piece. I had met someone on a train who was coming to Calcutta to meet her mother. A mother who most of the time did not recognise her due to Alzheimer. I cannot pretend to understand the heart-breaking moments you have gone through. You are blessed, Oriah. You are making your highest choices every moment and being good. God bless.

    1. Chitralekha, it is a horribly cruel disease- although truthfully, with my father (who is in an advanced stage) I find it easier when he does not know me at all- am okay with just sitting with or walking with him. It is when he vaguely recognizes me and struggles to get who I am and is frustrated that my heart breaks.

  3. Dear Oriah, my quest to become fully human began many years ago when Iwas a young nun at Mount Saint Scholastica Monastery. Daily I read St. Paul's epistles--especially Ephesians and Galatians and those helped me realized that life was about becoming fully human. The journey is long but each day is a gift. Peace.

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